Walking back up the road toward home, I saw Rich Hartzell locking up his cabin. His car was stuffed to the roof with cardboard boxes and black trash bags; only the driver’s seat was empty.
The Only Game in Town
by Desmond Warzel
Walking back up the road toward home, I saw Rich Hartzell locking up his cabin. His car was stuffed to the roof with cardboard boxes and black trash bags; only the driver’s seat was empty.
He heard my footsteps in the gravel and turned. “Out for a stroll?”
“Down by Latshaw’s. The place has really gone to seed since the old man died last year.”
“Better off without him.”
I ignored this. “He’d never have made it this long. He’d been on oxygen for years.”
“Figures he’d think he was too good to breathe the same air as everyone else.”
“You didn’t know?”
“I don’t talk to any Latshaws. Never have.”
I’d always hated that hillbilly crap. One slight, one affront, and the families never speak again. Why people in a perfectly civilized state like Pennsylvania insisted on behaving like toothless yokels in tarpaper shacks in Mississippi, I’d never understood.
“Taking a ride?” I asked
“Arkansas,” said Hartzell. “My mother’s side of the family’s from there.”
“Unless that car runs on fusion, I wouldn’t count on making it.”
“That’s what siphons are for. Hell, even if I don’t get there, it beats sitting around. Anyway…” He trailed off, glancing up at the sky. It had been overcast for three months, and the clouds loomed lower and darker every day. “Anyway, I just want to see the sun again.”
I didn’t think he stood a chance, but I wished him well and shook his hand. “Thanks, Bobby,” he said. “You take care of yourself.” He spoke with uncharacteristic warmth, but I still thought I’d be happier with him gone.
He started his car and backed out, the driveway’s ruts jostling the precarious stack of boxes in the passenger seat.
As an afterthought, he stopped in the middle of the road and rolled down his window. “Someone came looking for you, Bobby.”
“Guy in a Jeep. I pointed him to your place. Probably still there. I didn’t hear him leave.”
“Thanks. I guess.” Hartzell drove off, his tires kicking up dust clouds that lingered after his passing.
With his departure, I had become the sole resident of Maple Hollow Road. In fact, if not for the mysterious visitor apparently awaiting my arrival, I’d have guessed I was the only person left in Pennsylvania.
I cut through the woods separating my cabin from Hartzell’s. On closer approach, I saw that there was indeed a second vehicle parked next to my truck, but the heavy foliage and oppressive shadows precluded a more detailed glimpse. I wished I’d brought the revolver with me; Whoever this might be, I suspected it wasn’t the Red Cross at this late date.
Forcing my way through the brush, I emerged into the overgrown clearing that passed for my front yard.
I’d stepped back in time. In the driveway was a familiar ’86 Jeep Wagoneer, black, a ratty sticker in the window reading “Ted Kennedy’s Car Killed More People Than My Guns.” And reclining on the lowered tailgate, a man I had last seen on the first of May, 1995 (the day I’d declared my withdrawal from Washington & Jefferson College for personal reasons, shortly after being notified by said College of my expulsion for academic insufficiency). It was Nick Penrod.
At closer range, the passage of time became more evident; he’d aged in subtle ways, as we all do, but the pertinent details–the flannel shirt over the threadbare Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt, the mane of curly black hair (a la Queen’s Brian May or Guns N’ Roses’ Slash) spilling out from under a red bandana, the cigarette wrapped in a self-satisfied smirk–all were as I remembered them.
“This is what an acid flashback must be like,” I said.
Penrod hopped off the tailgate. Red plastic gas cans filled the back of the Wagoneer. “Where you been, Smith? I thought it would take more than the collapse of civilization to get you out of the house.”
“Next time, call first.” The phones, of course, no longer worked.
“It’s been nineteen years. I figured I’d better check up on you.”
“Well, aside from a little tennis elbow, I’m fine.”
“All right, then. See you in 2033.”
“Make sure you bring that twenty you owe me.”
There was no tension here; this was a contest to see who’d crack up first. We ended up in a tie, both busting out laughing simultaneously. A hug was shared, with much slapping of backs.
“What’ve you been up to?” I asked.
“The usual. Graduated. Went to law school. Been practicing down in Virginia.”
“Better keep practicing. You’ve had the same Jeep for two decades; how successful could you be?”
“My other car is a Saab; I just thought you’d get a kick out of seeing the old gal again. Successful, hell; I’ve argued before the Supreme Court.”
“Did you win?”
“Like it matters now What about you? What college did you end up at?”
“None. I figured I was better off writing passable science fiction instead of mediocre scholarship.”
“I have all your books,” said Penrod. “They’re good. No joke.”
“My publisher disagreed. They cut me during the most recent purge.”
“But you got the last laugh. You’re still alive.”
“I was thinking about retiring anyway. Life in the midlist is no life at all.”
“You should have written bestsellers.”
“Good idea. I wish I’d tried it.”
“How famous did you think you’d get, with a name like Bob Smith? A pseudonym might have gotten you more attention.”
“No need,” I said. “As of three months ago, I’m America’s most famous living author.”
“Tell me how it went down up here.”
Hoping to wring a few last pennies from my latest book before my now-ex-publisher tossed it down the memory hole, I’d organized a series of signings, starting in Chicago and working my way east toward home. Pure self-indulgence; I’d surely spend more on gas than I’d realize in extra royalties.
It was the first of June, a Sunday. I’d hit Cleveland that afternoon and Youngstown in the evening, after which I’d allowed a couple of lingering fans the treat of taking their favorite science fiction writer to the nearest bar. Thus it was after midnight when I crossed into Pennsylvania on a back road (the interstates having nothing to offer me but speeding tickets).
Just outside Hermitage, my drooping eyelids got the best of me and I pulled off, figuring to tackle the last forty miles after a few hours’ sleep.
It was daylight when the earthquakes came and I was nudged gently awake by my truck’s roof–and by its dashboard, and by its passenger door. It felt like God had rolled four sixes and I was the only die left in the Yahtzee cup. I switched on the radio; both bands were static from one end to the other. My phone was out, too.
On the horizon, clouds began rolling in at a comical speed, like a silent movie playing at the wrong frame rate.
It was a blur after that. I found myself pulling into my driveway, but retained only a vague recollection of my route. At some point, the quakes had stopped.
Everything was out at my place: phone, electricity, cable. It was the same with Hartzell. I considered going into town, but he advised against it, saying that things were pretty bad there (actually, “They were fine with no phones or TV, but when the welfare cards quit working, things got ugly fast,” was how he charmingly put it). We agreed to hunker down in the woods until we knew what we were dealing with.
“And I’m still hunkered,” I said. “I don’t know what happened to everyone, but something did, because I haven’t seen a soul or heard a car since.”
“You’re taking it in stride, I must say.”
“All I ever wanted was to be left alone.”
“That explains the road with no sign and the driveway with no mailbox.”
“I guess I got my wish.”
“How do you live out here?”
“Hunting. Fishing. Mostly fishing.”
“Why, because you shoot like a blind man with both index fingers missing?”
“That, and because nightcrawlers are in unlimited supply; ammunition, I suspect, no longer is.”
“What do you hunt with?”
“My dad’s old revolver. A Colt .38 Detective Special.”
“With the two-inch barrel? You can’t hit the broad side of a barn with that thing.”
“Why would I shoot a barn?”
“The fishing here must be really good.”
“Come find out for yourself, if you don’t have any other appointments today.”
People (back when there were some) would ask me why I’d sold my parents’ old house and moved into the cabin year-round. Explaining was difficult; one either appreciates the privilege of having the Allegheny River thirty feet from one’s back porch, or one doesn’t.
I broke out two fishing rods and a container of night crawlers, and Penrod and I made our way down the hill to the riverbank.
“What’s biting these days?” he asked.
“Mostly smallmouth bass.”
“You’re not catching any bass with nightcrawlers.”
“Says you. I’ve been pulling bass out of here like Art Carney pulling presents out of Santa’s bag on The Twilight Zone.”
“For bass you want to use a spinner or a plug, or a hair jig.”
“I didn’t understand anything in that sentence.”
We baited our hooks and I cast my line. Penrod moved a little way upstream and followed suit. After a few minutes’ silence, he gave me a sideways glance and asked if there were catfish around.
“Plenty. I’ve been throwing them back.”
“Damnedest thing. I used to eat catfish by the pound, but lately even looking at them turns my stomach. Catch them if you want, but you clean them and you eat them.”
“Maybe I’ll try my luck around the bend down there. I wouldn’t want you to faint.”
“I wouldn’t go down there,” I said. The warning sprang to my lips with unusual swiftness, as if the words had bypassed my conscious mind entirely.
Penrod took a contemplative drag on his cigarette. “Why not?”
“No fish down there. Plus, that brush is so thorny it’ll cut the pants right off you.”
“I’ll give it a shot anyway.”
“Dude!” I snapped. “I told you it’s pointless. You don’t believe me?”
Penrod held up a placating hand. “No problem, man. It’s your river. Who pissed in your Wheaties, anyway?”
It sure was a lousy way to treat a friend I hadn’t seen in nineteen years. I couldn’t believe I’d said it.
I knew what would make up for it. “Can I offer you a beer?”
“Warm?” he asked skeptically.
“Hardly.” I walked along the bank until I glimpsed a length of fishing line tied to a tree and leading away through the grass to the riverbank. I hauled on it and a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon ascended from the depths. “I’ve been saving this for a special occasion. It’s not exactly ice-cold, but you won’t find colder.”
“That’s pretty ingenious,” said Penrod, accepting the proffered can.
“Hey, you thought of it. Remember the great Susquehanna River expedition of 1993?”
“Barely.” He cracked open the beer and took a long, appreciative swig. “I guess those who forget the Pabst are doomed to repeat it.”
For as long as I could remember, I’d said a prayer every night without giving it much thought. Now, with Penrod sacked out on the loveseat in the next room, I was self-conscious, and found myself mouthing the words rather than speaking them. I decided it still counted.
Nick Penrod and I had met in Intro to Philosophy. Awash in youthful arrogance, we’d considered ourselves grand intellectuals, and we’d each recognized in the other a kindred spirit. Many weeknights had been misspent in beer-fueled debates about politics, literature, music–anything but religion. Penrod, the atheist, and I, the Catholic, had declared it out of bounds, lest feelings be hurt. But it only took one drink too many to breach that barrier.
“How can a benevolent God allow so much suffering?” Penrod had demanded out of the blue one evening.
I’d taken up the gauntlet. “You lose the argument at ‘benevolent.’ That’s the problem with you atheists. You won’t read any theology, so you end up arguing against what you learned back in Sunday school.”
“My aunt’s one of these church people, and she’s always telling me God loves everyone.”
“Read your Bible, schmuck. God’s bumping people off on page four.”
“You’re saying God doesn’t love everybody?”
“I don’t see how an intelligent person could think so.”
“You’re saying my aunt isn’t intelligent?”
“Weren’t you saying that?”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is, tell your aunt to ask a Hittite if God loves everybody. If she can find one, that is.”
There’d been a brief, quiet interlude while Penrod formulated his response. I hadn’t been able to resist breaking the silence.
“Of course, Jesus loves everybody, but that’s not what you asked.” I’d ducked as an empty beer can, flung in jest rather than anger, sailed past my head.
“That makes even less sense.”
“Doesn’t need to make sense. God’s game, God’s rules. You don’t have to like it, but it’s the only game in town.”
I had thought that last bit rather profound, considering its impromptu nature. Penrod had disagreed. “Put it on a bumper sticker, Thomas Aquinas.”
I’d decided to steer the conversation elsewhere. It hadn’t taken much steering.
“Iron Maiden has a new album coming out this year,” I’d said.
“Maiden? Without Bruce Dickinson? I’d rather listen to Judy Garland.”
I finished my Hail Mary and lay quietly, thinking about the words themselves for the first time in quite a while. Penrod’s presence nearby didn’t embarrass me as much as it made me aware of the peculiar nature of my faith: that my surviving the apparent end of humanity had neither obliterated nor intensified it. I’d been on autopilot for as long as I could remember.
“Rise and shine, Bob,” said Penrod, far too cheerily.
“What time is it?”
“No clue. My watch stopped last month. I find I’m no worse off for not knowing.”
“Did you sleep in that bandana? Just admit your hairline’s receding.”
“What are your plans for this winter?”
“Starve to death, I suppose. You have a better idea?”
“I still have my parents’ old house down in Johnstown. I’ve stocked the place up via some judicious looting. There’s a generator and enough gas to last until spring. Then we can figure out what to do next.”
“When?” I asked.
“We can leave right now.”
“You don’t have other stragglers to collect?”
“I looked for a few friends. What did I have to lose? There’s no women, no TV, no Burger King; driving’s the only pleasure I have left. There’s plenty of gas around, if you know how to get at it.”
“No, you’re it. So what so you say, Smith? Think about it: electric lights to read by, a stove to cook on, a huge DVD collection. I have every Star Trek show; all thirty seasons.”
“There are only twenty-eight seasons.”
“I have the animated series, too.”
“Are there two bedrooms? Because if not, there better be an engagement ring in your pocket.”
The interior of Penrod’s Wagoneer was as I’d last seen it in 1995, except for nineteen years’ additional cigarette smoke and a CD player in place of the old cassette deck.
Penrod had the back door open and was fumbling amongst the floor’s accumulation of empty potato chip bags. “I had a map in here, for all the good it did me finding you. What’s the nearest town? Oil City?”
“Franklin,” I said. “But we’re not going there.” I found myself saying it with the same mysterious vehemence as when I’d stopped Penrod going downstream the previous day. I felt none of the anger that was reflected in my voice, but something compelled me to lash out.
“Dude, we can’t avoid towns forever. You’ve hidden long enough. I’m not saying it’s pretty, but it’s not as bad as you think.”
“We need to raid a supermarket anyway; I got nothing left to eat in here. Come on, suck it up. You need to see this; it’s important.”
I wanted to say okay, but I couldn’t force the word out. Finally I managed to nod and we were on our way.
By the time we reached the Franklin city limits and Bully Hill Road became Third Street, my shirt was soaked with sweat and my breath was short.
At first, my panic seemed unjustified. The omnipresent clouds blocked enough sunlight to lend the town a pre-dawn appearance, making the absence of people less eerie. But as we turned onto Liberty Street and made our way downtown, a closer inspection revealed much that was awry.
As a writer, I’d always avoided the word “surreal;” popular misuse had diluted it beyond utility. Here, though, I could think of no other adjective. Broken tree branches, busted windows, and fallen traffic signs might have been caused by the earthquakes; overturned cars, uprooted park benches, and lampposts bent double pointed to some deliberate, monstrous agency.
“Feel better now?” asked Penrod. I did, curiously enough. It was a relief to see it, even if the particulars suggested that the disaster had been worse than I’d imagined.
“It’s like this everywhere?”
“The whole world, as far as I know.”
“So what happened, and where’d the people go?”
“Search me; I was cowering in my basement the whole time. Now: to the nearest grocery store.”
Fortunately, most of the Shop ‘n Save’s windows were broken, which meant the stench of decayed meat and produce was slightly more tolerable than if it had been bottled up in there. We loaded the Jeep’s back seat with chips, Cheetos, and warm Pepsi. It wasn’t exactly tea at the Savoy, but we knew that stuff was safe to eat.
“Good to go,” said Penrod. “You want to stop at the library for some reading material? Hell of a long trip ahead.”
“Why? Because you still drive like an old lady?”
“Because the roads are full of abandoned vehicles.”
“I can’t read in the car. It makes me throw up.”
“And I’m the old lady?”
We crossed the Eighth Street bridge and left town, headed east on Route 322. We didn’t set any land-speed records; too many fallen rocks, tree branches, and uprooted sections of guardrail littered the road. There were cars, too, parked haphazardly, many trailing thick black skid marks, as if they had been shoved into their present positions.
None of that mattered. Penrod negotiated the obstacle course masterfully to a soundtrack of Iron Maiden, Rush, and Pink Floyd, and for a few hours, I wasn’t forty years old anymore.
We made the outskirts of Clarion (a forty-minute drive in saner times) in a couple of hours. From there we’d pick up PA-66 to Kittanning, then US-422 to Indiana, then PA-56 to Johnstown. By prior agreement, Clarion marked my turn to drive, but I’d found myself yawning for the past several minutes, and begged off. Penrod agreed. “It’s not like I trusted you to drive this thing anyway.”
When I woke, the music had stopped. My head was pounding, my right arm trapped beneath me and nearly paralyzed. I forced my eyes open and was astonished to find us traveling in a straight line at a normal speed.
We were on a divided highway, our path unobstructed. This was not reassuring; the abandoned cars were still present, but here they’d been tumbled into the shallow valley that ran along the center of the median.
“Alternate route?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.
“Hey, you’re up. Just in time, too. Alternate route? Yeah, you might say that.”
“Where are we?”
“Interstate 91, north of Hartford, Connecticut.”
I burst out laughing. “Baloney. How long was I asleep?”
“The whole day,” said Penrod.
“What’d you do, drug me?
“Give me a break.”
“It wasn’t that hard. Back in the day, I remember two Tylenol PM putting you on your ass for thirty-six hours.”
A route marker flashed by. We were indeed on I-91.
“Where are we going?”
“Hey, Penrod, I don’t think I like this.”
“I have to show you something. Don’t try anything dumb like going for your gun. It’s locked up in the back.” He snorted. “Like you could hit me with that peashooter.”
I leaned against the headrest. I had no idea what to try. Jumping out would kill me; wresting the steering wheel away from Penrod would kill us both.
“We’re getting close,” said Penrod. “I need you to think back. Remember that argument we had about religion?”
“God’s game, God’s rules?”
“No, the one after that.”
Penrod had suggested that we really weren’t so different; that he simply believed in one less god than I did.
“The reason you don’t believe in many gods is the same reason I don’t believe in yours.”
“You’re arguing with your Sunday school teacher again. Of course Christians believe in other gods. We just don’t worship them.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The Bible is full of supernatural beings, many of whom were worshiped by various pagans. Hence the Commandment ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before Me,’ which would be superfluous if there weren’t any.”
It had continued in that vein for some time, but that had been the gist of it.
“I remember. What about it?”
“Just that I’m willing to admit when you’re right and I’m wrong.”
We reached the top of a small rise and Penrod brought the Wagoneer to a stop in the middle of the highway.
It was nearing dusk, as far as could be discerned through the clouds, but there was more than enough light to see what lay ahead of us.
A river of people, flowing eastward, meandering from one horizon to the other with no beginning or end.
They were of all races, and ranged in age from about five years old to about eighty or ninety. They were in various states of dress, and some were even naked. Yet this diversity was superficial; my eyes were easily fooled into thinking them a single organism, and it was only with difficulty that I could pick out particular individuals from the crowd.
Whatever their outward differences, they were unified in their demeanor. They each bore the same blank expression, their eyes glazed over as if focusing on something only they could see. And though they weren’t marching in step, they all walked with the same shuffling gait, as if guided by one mind for a single purpose .
Most wore shoes, but some were barefoot. The fortunate among these merely had feet stained solid purple from bruises. Others fared worse, their feet barely recognizable, the flesh of their soles ground into hamburger or worn through to the bone. Despite these grievous injuries, they kept pace with the rest, leaving bloody footprints on the asphalt as they crossed in front of us.
And they were quiet.
No groans of pain, no wails of despair, no crying children. Only the dull sound of shuffling feet and shallow breaths.
All of these observations I made in the space of a second or two, for my attention was immediately arrested by an even more bizarre apparition.
These poor souls did not make their pilgrimage unsupervised.
Spaced perhaps every hundred feet along the route were, for lack of a better term, monsters. Wet, shiny, amorphous things, ranging in size from that of a small car to that of a large panel truck. They kept pace with their charges like a drill sergeant marching with his platoon, pulling themselves along with prehensile tentacles that they extruded and retracted at will. Their unblinking eyes came and went, emerging through their skin, pausing, then retreating inward once more, like the lumps of wax in a lava lamp.
They were hideous, and so very familiar.
Such was my fascination with them that it was only when Penrod seized me from behind, as one might restrain a belligerent drunk, that I noticed I’d exited the Jeep and crossed half the distance separating us from the unearthly tableau. Had I intended to plunge into that river of the damned and be swept away?
“Steady, Bob,” said Penrod. “This is the test. You get past this and it’s Miller time.”
“You asked about our ‘many gods’ argument. These are gods?”
“These? No, just servants. Errand boys. Shoggoths.”
“Shoggoths?” I asked hoarsely.
“Hey, I didn’t name them.” Penrod relinquished his embrace and instead grasped my firmly by the shoulders. “But you’ve seen them before, haven’t you?”
“I remember now.”
The beginning was as I’d said. I pulled over to nap on my way home from Youngstown, and was woken by earthquakes. The clouds rolled in swiftly; it felt like the lid of a casket closing in my face. Then, looming on the horizon, I saw…something. A hulking creature, vaguely manlike, its head lost among the clouds. I could make out no finer details; my gaze kept sliding off it, as if it were constructed around some alien geometry my mind couldn’t comprehend. Its every footfall shook the ground beneath my tires.
Suddenly these creatures, these shoggoths, appeared everywhere, swarming out from among the trees. Sheer terror took control of me, and I started the truck and mashed the accelerator, dodging the creatures as best I could, my stomach turning somersaults as their tentacles slapped against the windows in vain attempts to capture me.
By the time I reached my cabin, the shoggoth onslaught had thinned to nothing; evidently I had succeeded in running the gauntlet. Though he’d felt the quakes, my neighbor Hartzell had witnessed neither the shoggoths nor their titanic master. Without going into detail, I told him to arm himself while I retrieved my own revolver and a box of shells. We stood in the middle of Maple Hollow Road, figuring we were safer in the open than trapped in our homes.
An hour passed in silence. Just as Hartzell started to insist on an explanation, there came the staccato sound of gravel being disturbed. A lone shoggoth made its way up the road toward us. It was of middle size; had it resolved itself into a sphere, its diameter would have been about nine feet.
Hartzell bore a twelve-gauge Winchester shotgun, which he emptied into the creature without hesitation, firing five times in rapid succession and spraying its entire front with buckshot. Tiny holes appeared all over its hide as it absorbed the blasts, but the beast was unperturbed. While Hartzell reloaded, I fired all six rounds from my Colt, aiming for its constantly moving eyes without much luck.
We kept on that way, alternating buckshot and bullets as we retreated, but the shoggoth kept coming. When we finally gave up and bolted for the trees, it pursued with surprising speed.
When we hit the river, we made for the middle, where the current was swiftest. We figured that, with the water interrupting our scent trail, we might escape entirely if we could get downstream and out of sight. But swimming while keeping our weapons and ammunition above the water was awkward business, and the shoggoth was just too fast. We got as far as the first bend, and made our stand by the waterlogged remains of a fallen tree.
We emptied our guns at the shoggoth one final time, for it was nearly on top of us. Whether from cumulative damage or the last-second piercing of some vital organ, the creature collapsed into a shapeless mass and was still. The river’s current dragged the carcass until it became snagged on the dead tree’s branches. Oily black fluids seeped from the shoggoth’s many wounds and flowed downstream. Dead fish floated to the surface wherever the foul slick lay on the water.
“And then your brains papered over the more horrific portions of those memories. But your unconscious still knew; that’s why you stopped me from fishing downstream. The remains of the shoggoth were still there.”
“That giant thing I saw?”
“A god. One of many.”
“What are we to them?”
“Less than nothing. If the world is their house, we’re the bacteria in the bathtub drain. Beneath notice.”
I pointed at the procession of miserable humanity before us. “Someone’s noticed these people.”
“These are just the stragglers; the rest have already been gathered. Fine; call us particularly useful bacteria.
“As servants. Sacrifices. Food. Whatever. But some have enough willpower to stay sane. That’s why I came for you, Smith. I knew you were strong enough to be one of us.”
“We who brought about their return.”
I wrenched my shoulders out of Penrod’s grasp and confronted him. “How did you get mixed up in this?”
“My arguments before the Supreme Court must have made an impression. Afterward, one of the Justices contacted me privately. She introduced me to some…interesting reading material, and an enlightened group of people who’d been working for years to bring this about. And now we’ve succeeded.”
“For Christ’s sake, why?”
“Because we’re tired of absentee landlords.”
Suddenly, responding to some unseen command, the entire procession came to a halt.
“Feeding time,” said Penrod.
A pore opened in the hide of the nearest shoggoth and expanded into a gaping hole the size of a basketball. From this orifice the creature unceremoniously vomited a stream of thick, gray paste onto the asphalt. The deluge continued until there was a runny, foul-smelling heap of the stuff reaching waist-high. Up and down the line, the other shoggoths had done the same.
The people broke ranks and congregated around the piles, scooping up the gray vomitus with their hands and shoving it into their slack mouths.
“What’s it to be, Smith? Are you coming with me?”
“What if I don’t?”
“I wouldn’t have the heart to shoot you. You’d have to take your chances with the shoggoths like your neighbor’s doing. If he’d stuck around, he might have lived.”
The despair I felt was nearly elemental. It was the quintessence of despair. For a moment there seemed no difference between my two options. Weren’t all creatures marching inexorably toward oblivion, simply by living?
In the end, even this darkest of philosophies couldn’t eclipse my basic, selfish nature. I got back in the Jeep.
“I knew you’d come around.” Penrod started the engine. “First, we’re going to meet a fellow named Nyarlathotep.”
“Egyptian?” I asked dully.
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Nice guy. Everyone who meets him likes him. He gave me this.” Penrod removed his bandana for the first time since we’d reunited.
Just above his forehead, a patch of hair had been seared away, leaving a perfect, bare circle the size of a fist. Inscribed on his scalp was a single character: a letter or ideogram in some unknown language. The sight of it unsettled me out of all proportion; whatever word or idea it communicated surely had to be a profanity.
In response to the uncovering of Penrod’s mark, two of the shoggoths extruded numerous tentacles and interrupted the meal, herding everyone off the road so we could pass.
“It’s like any religion,” said Penrod. “It’s all about the hierarchy. A couple of individual thinkers like you and me, we’ll be running the whole world a year from now.”
“Our father, who art in heaven…” I began, not knowing why.
“Go ahead and get it out of your system, said Penrod.
“Hallowed be…” The words wouldn’t come.
“While you have God on the line, tell Him if He’d bothered to show up once in a while, this could have been avoided.”
“Yea, though I walk through the valley…” As soon as I said it, the remainder of the passage vanished from my memory.
“Psalm twenty-three, verse four. See, I’ve read my Bible after all. Opposition research. You’re the modern-day Saul of Tarsus, even if I-91 isn’t exactly the road to Damascus.”
“Hail, Mary…” I barely got the two words out before that prayer, and every other one I’d known, were gone. Defeated, I slumped against the passenger window.
“Don’t nod off on me,” said Penrod. “We be there in a few hours, and you have a bunch of new prayers to learn. And some of these names are a bitch to pronounce.”